The High Cost of Business

by Walter Pierce

Artmosphere owner shelling out thousands each month to meet sales mandate.

Artmosphere owner shelling out thousands each month to meet sales mandate.

Artmosphere owner Beryl Kemp
Photo by Robin May

The Facebook status update posted by Artmosphere owner Berry Kemp on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 26, was dramatic and ominous: “Please pray for us, light a candle, send good vibes, whatever you can ...ATC Criminal Investigation Dept is here going through our books with a fine tooth comb, any little mistake could mean big trouble. Please come and eat, thank you for all the support this [sic] far, we still need you. I am in tears.”

Kemp tells The IND the spot audit by the state office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control at the end of January lasted a few hours. The agents, a man and woman, had come in, ordered and ate lunch and then demanded to see receipts, ordering Kemp to run point-of-sale (POS) reports.

The agents didn’t say how long it might take for ATC to contact her about the findings of this latest audit. “They didn’t give me any indication of when,” she says. “I’m totally on pins and needles.”

Artmosphere, because it operates on a restaurant license, is required by law to sell more food than liquor — at least 51 percent food and 49 percent liquor, to be precise. Kemp was called before ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert last March after an ATC audit — based on a tip given to the state agency, Kemp believes, by a competitor — showed the popular live-music venue-slash-bistro was way out of whack with its food-versus-liquor sales. At the March meeting, Hebert fined Kemp $1,000 and gave Artmosphere three months to get its sales in balance or face loss of its license to sell alcohol, which would effectively put the venue out of business.

Kemp and staff pushed food sales vigorously on social media during the probation period and met the 51-49 mandate in June, but Artmosphere was required to submit monthly POS reports for the rest of 2014 showing she remained in compliance. And that’s where Kemp’s commitment to keeping Artmosphere open took a personal toll.

“I told [the ATC agent in January], ‘Well, you know, if you’re asking me what my number for this month is going to be, I can tell you what it’s going to be — 51 percent, because that’s what I have to have. And if it’s not 51 percent, then a couple of days prior to the deadline we’ll run a report and see what our percentage is and then whatever amount I have to do to make it 51 percent ... I’ll buy that much food and I’ll give it away.”

Kemp says that to make her December sales percentage she purchased about $10,000 worth of food with personal funds and just gave it away — to Downtown businesses, real estate agencies and by catering parties for employees and friends. In fact, she used personal funds for much of the second half of 2014 to keep her food sales at 51 percent to satisfy ATC.

“It’s not sustainable,” Kemp adds, “and I started crying and I told her, ‘This is what I’ve had to do to be open. Something has to give. I don’t want to shut down; everyone here depends on [Artmosphere] for a living.’” There she goes with the crying again, and for good reason: Kemp opened Artmosphere 12 years ago as a bistro-slash-art gallery with acoustic music a few nights per week. But she’s pumped a lot of money into it and turned Artmosphere into one of Lafayette’s most popular live-music venues. And therein lies the problem: No one wants to sit around listening to a rock band for two hours and not drink a few beers, and Artmosphere’s booze sales quickly outpaced its receipts for food.

Because she’s close to a church — Kemp disputes how the city measures proximity and insists it should be interpreted as church to Artmosphere entrance, which would put it beyond the 300-foot minimum distance between church and bar — she took the water-course way when she opened Artmosphere and obtained a restaurant liquor license rather than battle the church and the city over getting a bar license, which would allow her to sell all alcohol and no food. Six months later the Lafayette City- Parish Council voted in a moratorium on new bar licenses Downtown.

So Kemp is stuck with a restaurant license but clearly operates as a bar. She believes if the city would use the church-to-Artmosphere-door measurement, the council would be willing to retroactively grandfather Artmosphere and let her get that coveted bar license.

“The feeling I’ve had is that nobody really wants us to have to shut down and that we would have support [on the council],” Kemp says, adding that she’s spoken to everyone from her council rep, Brandon Shelvin, to staff at the Downtown Development Authority to seek a solution.

She even sought out legal help, but now, after several months of paying out of her own pocket to meet the 51-49 ratio, that’s out of the question: “I can’t afford a lawyer,” Kemp says. “I’ve spent all my money trying to stay open.”